Andrew Buckley: Wave By Wave

How many times has a raindrop been recycled?

By the time of publication, we should be feeling some effects of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Jose. Changeable as these tracks always are, it would be a fool’s errand to predict what could be happening. If a hundred years of tracking these isn’t enough, the simple past few weeks of the Disaster Movie of the Week (whose programming seems to be stuck entirely on storms) is evidence enough that things rarely go as expected.

Harvey hitting the fourth largest city in the country one week, and Irma coming along a week later to the Virgin Islands and Florida the next, we all have someone we know who experienced these storms firsthand. Rather than news stories, these are personal stories of people we know. I watched friends, knowing Harvey would dump a ton of rain, head to the coast to retrieve vehicles, loved ones and pets.

Then in the aftermath, seeing the highways turn to rivers, unbelievably. And wait to hear that everyone was safe, and then see photos of the rescues.

Likewise with Irma, knowing that these tiny islands were going to be just nailed, we watch webcams stream unreal video of destruction – until they went out. News barely trickled in before the storm hit Florida, overtaking our attention, threatening all new groups of those we knew. Only today did I see photos posted of Josh Smith’s 30-foot sailboat, washed up several hundred yards inland in Miami.

I had thought, originally, that I would write about the folly of building a sprawling city on a swamp in southeast Texas. Or a whole state near sea level like Irma. But what about whole islands, that have been lived on for centuries? Barbuda is devoid of human life right now, completely evacuated from total devastation. Do we, as a species, just write off our existence there and the surrounding areas because tropical cyclones can destroy everything in a matter of hours?

Humans are resilient. We were almost wiped out a million years ago, but bounced back. We will endure endless amounts of heartbreak in order to make a life someplace. No, the question I am pondering to no real end is: At what point, does it just become too expensive to rebuild?

This is not a mundane question of whether the federal government should subsidize flood insurance, allowing state and local governments to allow building in areas that are at risk. I mean more existentially, at what point do we run out of money to rebuild, year after year, as the tide comes in to destroy our sandcastles?

When clamming, done a couple hours before and a couple after low tide, there comes a point where you have to stop. The flood starts to creep onto the exposed flats. Sometimes ever so slowly and others in a rush blown by the wind. You can’t dig steamers that are submerged. Not with a short-handled hoe. You dig as fast as you can to get what you can, but then the water spills into the holes and you’re done. Time to load up and take your catch to sell.

In a tiny way, that is what is going on in islands in the Caribbean now. Just as the cleanup begins from Irma, along comes Maria. Not nearly as powerful, but it is just too soon. There are people in Florida who moved back from the ocean after hurricanes hit their houses years ago. Now they are thinking it’s time to just leave. The infrastructure – utilities, roads, gas stations, supermarkets – just can’t handle the crush of millions of people demanding them all at once even before a storm hits.

At some point, banks – hit by mortgage defaults on homes that are literally underwater – could just stop writing new loans. At some point, a society just says this area is not worth returning to. Not worth heroic efforts to rebuild. That it is more suitable for a houseboat than a house.

We here are not there. Not really, not yet. Of course, there are some houses that have indeed washed into the sea. They will again, if not this year or the next. Little Beach, south of Chatham Lighthouse, this spring ended up with direct access to the ocean via the new Fool’s Channel. The Morris Island dike is a thin barrier across a traditional opening to Stage Harbor. Things will change, and they do, daily.

Perhaps Jose will be nothing. Perhaps, as you read this later in the week, it was a non-event. Or perhaps it pried open beach and poured in water and pushed sand into new shoals – lower, broader, flatter.

That’s what we’re looking at, as time goes by, really everywhere. The great rolling pin of nature, spreading our surroundings out, more vulnerable to the ocean and the winds. This week it is Jose. Next week, perhaps Maria. One wave crashing after another against this shore we stand upon, watching as it claws towards us, fascinated.